Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Following the release of Todd Phillip’s upcoming thriller, ‘Joker’, the clown prince of crime will have appeared in 12 on-screen adaptations, over 14 video games and featured in dozens of graphic novels and comics spanning all the way back to 1940. It is no surprise then that with every new live-action appearance of the character, we are presented with a slightly new take on his backstory and personality. From Nicholson’s goofy, straight-from-a-comic-book approach to Ledger’s gritty realism, it can be truly said that each new take on the Joker is unique.
However, being unique does not make something perfect.
Despite adoring most of the various on-screen interpretations of the manic serial killer, I believe that whilst some came close, none have yet to nail who the Joker really is. Now, in 2019, Todd Phillips is hoping that his take on the character will be the one to finally swipe up that accolade. And I’m sceptical to say the least.
On first hearing about Joaquin Phoenix’s appointment as the new Joker back in 2018, I like many, was ecstatic. The man is a professional at playing it crazy; his performance as the power-mad Commodus in ‘Gladiator’ is testament to that. Then when footage of the actor’s screen test for the film first emerged, things just kept getting better. We were treated to Phoenix in familiar, yet fresh Joker attire dancing happily to ‘Laughing’ by Guess Who. The short clip then ended with Phoenix switching the childish grin on his face to a deadly serious glare in an instant, an action that could have been easily missed by those unaware. And it was this brief but powerful change in expression that ultimately sold me. I thought to myself, “Here is a film that gets insanity. It understands that insanity is subtle and can go unnoticed if not paid attention to. It isn’t larger than life and it doesn’t hold up a big sign.” Add this to the fact that Todd Phillips had repeatedly stated that, instead of focusing on big action set pieces, his movie was going to be a complete character study of the man who would eventually become the Joker, and I firmly believed that this film was in safe hands.
And then the trailers hit.
Gone were the subtle expressions of a complex character towing the line between criminal insanity and common decency. These trailers had taken the entire concept of subtlety and thrown it clean out the window. Lines like, “My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face” as pre-Joker Arthur Fleck writes unfunny jokes in his “jokes” book are just some of the astoundingly blatant and cringey attempts to let the audience know that this man will at some point become the Joker. The ham-fisted approach continues into Arthur’s profession as we see he actually dons a clown outfit as part of his job as a sign holder. Todd Phillips is either a horrible visionary or he purposefully wrote this script for people who had never heard of Batman or the Joker and my guess is that it isn’t the latter.
I feel that now would be a good time to reflect on an occasion where foreshadowing was done right. Take the ‘Dark Knight’ for example; arguably the best Batman film to date. The reason for its greatness doesn’t just lie in Christopher Nolan’s ability to craft a beautiful scene nor does it surprisingly lie in Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the criminal mascara addict. It lies in the spectacular character arc of Harvey Dent as he slowly descends into madness and into the villain known as Two Face. The magic of this arc is that, even though you know Dent is going to turn into the scarred menace at some point, in the beginning, you find the whole idea really hard to get your head around. How is it that such an upstanding civil servant will fall into the dark depths of criminality? Unlike Phoenix’s Joker, there are no obvious signs beating you over the head or telling you bad jokes. The only signs that we get are subtle. We see that, when dealing with stressful situations (such as the kidnap of his girlfriend), Harvey has an anger issue that he can’t control. We also see that he has a strong sense of fairness and justice, especially when it comes to hunting down the mob. Even Dent’s signature “lucky” coin is only ever used as a gimmick up until the point when he turns. Nothing about his transformation is ever telegraphed to us; it is up to us as the audience to fit the pieces together.
A lack of subtlety aside, the other big problem that I have with Todd Phillip’s ‘Joker’ is the route that Philips appears to be taking the plot. Judging from what we have seen in the trailers, of people in clown masks rioting in the streets against various authorities, it seems like Phoenix’s Joker will be leading some sort of class uprising against the wealthy and elite of Gotham. Yes, you heard it right. It appears that in this version, the Joker will be a political activist.
And I have a huge issue with this.
The character of the Joker isn’t a movement. He isn’t an ideology or a beacon for change. The Joker is a depraved maniac who acts on impulse and who has no regard for the safety of himself or anyone else around him. The idea that this type of person could (or would want to) rally others behind him is, for want of a better word, insane.
I have no doubt that Todd Phillip’s ‘Joker’ will be unique, and it will probably be talked about as having brought a new spin to the Joker mythos. However my fear is that, in his endeavour to seek new ground, Phillips has forgotten what made the Joker such an iconic comic book titan in the first place.